CENTERVILLE — Kylee West was a dual performer Friday when Lakota East High School’s softball team needed one.
The junior center fielder made a running catch near the outfield fence in the top of the fifth inning to rob Lebanon of a run, then notched what proved to be the game-winning RBI in the bottom of the inning.
The Thunderhawks scored three times in the fifth and Sydney Larson continued her pitching dominance in their seventh straight shutout victory, a 3-0 decision in a Division I district championship game at Centerville.
“Oh my gosh, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” said West, a transfer who played for Xenia last season. “We never expect anything, but when we come out and play our game, we have the world at our feet. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to come out and play with these girls and have such a good outcome, especially against such a great team.”
Larson tossed a two-hitter with five strikeouts. She gave up a pair of singles to Lebanon’s Emma Ball, who was on first base with one out in the top of the fifth when West snared a drive by Audrey Masenheimer in deep right-center field.
“I didn’t know I caught it until I caught it,” West said. “Honestly, I can’t even remember what happened. All I remember is catching the ball and saying, ‘My goodness, what’s that?’ ”
Suddenly brimming with adrenaline, East got a strikeout from Larson to end the Lebanon fifth, then opened the bottom of the frame with three straight hits.
Ali Lewis doubled and West and Hailey Holtman followed with RBI singles. One out later, Cassidy Hudson’s run-scoring single made it 3-0.
“They’re all believing right now,” Thunderhawks coach Dan Castner said. “When we explode, you’ve got to watch out because we string a lot of hits together and the other team starts making mistakes.”
Larson had to escape a bases-loaded jam in the seventh after sandwiching walks to Ashleigh Riffle and Masenheimer around a single by Ball, getting a game-ending ground out off the bat of Riley Vunak.
“I thought they all played with their hearts today, and it was a lot of fun for them,” Castner said. “It’s a good feeling to beat a team like Lebanon. We can gauge our season with something like that.”
Hudson, Lewis and Abby Niehaus all had two hits for East (27-1), which will be back at Centerville for a 2 p.m. regional semifinal Wednesday against Greater Miami Conference rival Mason. The GMC champion Thunderhawks topped the Comets 2-1 and 10-4 during the regular season.
“It’s undescribable,” said Larson, a senior who will play her college ball at Ohio University. “We’ve had a season where we just keep overcoming every obstacle. No mattter who has a bad day and who has a good day, every single person in our dugout is continuously stepping up. That’s such a fun team to be on.”
East has been playing for weeks without head coach Steve Castner, who’s been hospitalized with an undisclosed medical issue. His coaching status moving forward is unknown, though Dan Castner said his brother is getting better and going through rehabilitation.
“Every game we’re fighting for him,” West said. “Every game that we play, every run that we make, every ball that we catch, it’s for him. We know he’s getting better and cheering us on.”
The Thunderhawks expected to be state contenders when Steve Castner was still in the dugout. Now the players are determined to honor their coach by making it to the state tournament in Akron.
“I miss him, I really do. He’s the heart of this team,” Larson said. “It was kind of sad to hear his name called today and him not be here, but he is here with us.”
Can East win a state championship? The Thunderhawks have never won a state game, losing in the semifinals in 2010.
“We’ll see,” Larson said. “From the beginning of the season, something’s felt different. So I think there’s no team better suited for it.”
Jess Howard and Dan Castner are coaching the team in Steve Castner’s absence. Howard said she’s cautiously optimistic about East’s state aspirations.
“We know we’re staring down a tough road,” she said. “Anybody can come out any day and do anything, so everybody’s got to be ready every day. But ‘Why not us?’ is a good way to put it.”
Megan Deem pitched an eight-hitter for Lebanon (17-8), which knocked the Thunderhawks out of last year’s regional with a 6-3 decision.
Warriors coach Brian Kindell was happy to see his crew fight all the way to the end of Friday’s game.
“I’m really proud of the way the kids hung in there and fought against a really good team,” Kindell said. “We hoped that we could make enough plays and give ourselves a chance at the end, and we did that. It just wasn’t in the cards. We didn’t hit a lot of balls hard today, and we couldn’t get one when we needed it. But we went down swinging.”
He said East deserved credit for its defensive play, specifically mentioning outfield catches by West and left fielder Madison Cureton.
“They were able to take hits away from us,” Kindell said. “We didn’t break down defensively, but we didn’t take away hits from them, and to win a game like this, you’ve got to be able to do those things.”
Eight Lebanon seniors will be graduating: Kat Frank, Grace Gressly, Sophie Gephart, Ashley West, Riffle, Vunak, Ball and Masenheimer.
“We’ve had so much adversity this year with injuries and things that just kind of set us back a little bit,” Kindell said. “We had some really bad weather on weekends toward the end of the season that took away some of our marquee nonleague games that really help us get ready for a game like this.
“A lot of leadership is walking out the door. This senior class is still one of the most accomplished classes in the history of Lebanon High School, and nobody can take that away from them.”
East’s only loss this season came at the hands of Lakota West on April 29. The Thunderhawks are a veteran squad that has responded in veteran fashion.
Larson reacted with considerable emotion after Friday’s win. She said that’s the only way she knows how to act on the field.
“I like to do that from out No. 1 to out No. 21 because it keeps me excited and it keeps my team excited, and that’s kind of what we roll on is energy,” Larson said.
Howard said Kylee West has been a significant addition to the team.
“She’s been solid all year defensively, and offensively she brings something that is more akin to the Masons of the world, which is she’s really fast,” Howard said. “We’ve had some fast runners come through, but that’s not how we structure our teams if you really can structure teams. You work with what you have, but it’s nice to have that added dimension.”
Lakota East 000-030-x—3-8-0
WP — Sydney Larson (19-1); LP — Megan Deem (8-4). Records: LEB 17-8, LE 27-1
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